To say that there have not been many well-known Polish goaltenders would be an understatement. There have been only two that have had any real dent in terms of professional hockey that the vast majority would know about but they both enjoyed successful careers elsewhere. Peter Sidorkiewicz has lived most of his life in North America, moving to Canada as a child; he spent time with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals before an NHL career that saw him spend time with the Hartford Whalers, Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils. The late Stefan Liv was born in Poland but he was adopted by a family from Sweden, where he honed his craft before coming to North America with the Detroit Red Wings organization, ending his career in the KHL before his tragic death in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash on September 7, 2011. Other than those two, Polish goaltenders seem to be a mystery.
In fact, it is not just Polish goaltenders who seem to be that way. It is Polish hockey as a whole that seems to be so unknown. Even though Wojtek Wolski is playing in his birth country during the 2012 lockout, and former Russian national team coach Vyacheslav Bykov now the top consultant of the national men’s team, the sheer magnitude of oblivion toward hockey in Poland still appears immense. I remember talking to Kingston Frontenacs forward Ryan Kujawinski, himself a Polish Canadian, and it bewildered him to know that there were so many great players in Poland, especially in goal. (Of course, we are talking about a young man who did not even know how to say his own last name in Polish, or even the word “hello” for that matter.) I was taken aback but not surprised so I thought I should look at the masked men playing in Poland, or bramkarze as they are known in their native language.
In the preparation for this article, I was hoping to rank a comprehensive list of Polish goaltenders born between 1980 and 1995, but that did not materialize. One main reason was that the 1984 birth year was not kind to Polish goalies with only two of any significant renown but not much experience between them. Additionally, there were several birth years where it would be hard just to pick one goalie among so many talents. I then decided instead to tell about ten really talented netminders of different ages from around the country, ones who have considerable experience and wisdom, international credential and recognition, and hope and promise for the future, ranked from oldest to youngest.
Before we get started, I must give credit where credit is due and acknowledge some other Polish goaltenders who did not make this list but who have played well enough to even be considered. That being said, a big bravo — and an even bigger dziękuję – must also go out to the likes of Bartłomiej Nowak, Daniel Kachniarz, Dawid Zabolotny, Gabriel Samolej, Igor Tomczyk, Krzysztof Bojanowski, Marek Batkiewicz (one of very few to play for Poland at the Olympics), Marek Rączka, Mariusz Ryszkaniec, Michał Elżbieciak, Miłosz Ciesielski, Norbert Karamuz, Szymon Niemczyk and Tomasz Wawrzkiewicz, all of whom solid goalies in their own rights.
Born on April 2, 1976, Zbigniew Szydłowski does not make this list of the best Polish goaltenders based on statistics but mostly based on his experience. At 36 years of age, he is the oldest active goalie in the country playing professionally this season, nearly two decades older than some of the others. Szydłowski has played the majority of his professional career in his hometown of Bytom, a nearly five-hour drive away from Warsaw. He started his professional career with them at the age of 21 during the 1997-98 season with their top team, Polonia. He was either used sparingly during his first years with Polonia or his statistics were just not accurately recorded for the next seven seasons. By 2002, the team had been relegated to the second-highest professional league. Things changed immensely for Szydłowski starting in the 2006-07 campaign. That year, he had his statistically best season, recording a 1.78 goals-against average and a .918% save percentage in 28 regular-season games; he also had a 1.99 goals-against average and a .919% save percentage in eight qualification matches, allowing for Polonia to be re-promoted. After one more solid season with Polonia, Szydłowski explored other opportunities. He played ten games for Naprzód Janów in 2008-09 before he appeared in a career-high 41 games in 2009-10 for Unia Oświęcim, a season in which he had a solid 3.07 goals-against average and a .906% save percentage. He played only five games the next season, two for GKS Tychy and three back with Polonia. After an eleven-game stint last season with Zagłębie Sosnowiec, Szydłowski re-signed with Polonia this year.
Born on January 15, 1980, Arkadiusz Sobecki has spent his entire professional career with GKS Tychy en route to making him one of the more successful Polish goaltenders ever. He got his first taste of playing time with them during the 1995-96 season when he was only fifteen years old. His statistics were not accurately documented for the next three seasons but, starting during the 1999-2000 campaign, Sobecki started on his way to what has been a superlative career. He officially became GKS Tychy’s #1 goalie during the 2002-03 season, appearing in 38 games, recording a 3.34 goals-against average and an .870% save percentage. As Sobecki continued to improve, so did the team’s fortunes. In 2004-05, he was an absolute revelation with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .909% save percentage in 35 regular-season games, as well as a 1.39 goals-against average and an outstanding .952% save percentage in twelve playoff contests to win a Polish league championship for GKS Tychy that year. He also represented Poland for the first time at the World Championships, helping his country win silver. Thanks to Sobecki, GKS Tychy won four consecutive Polish Cup championships between 2007 and 2010; additionally, he won yet another silver medal at the World Championships in 2007. During the 2007-08 season, Sobecki had a personal best 1.86 goals-against average in 41 games. In 2011, he played at the PLH All-Star Game; he also led the league with a 2.19 goals-against average and .921% save percentage in only 27 games that year. He even bettered that save percentage by 0.04% last season. Sobecki has started ten games so far this season for GKS Tychy.
Born on July 10, 1981, Rafał Radziszewski has also become one of the more successful Polish goaltenders in recent memory. A native of Sosnowiec, Radziszewski started his career in his hometown with Zagłębie during the 1998-99 season. Two years later, he represented Poland for the first time on the international stage, appearing at the 2001 World Juniors. After two more years with Zagłębie Sosnowiec, he transferred to Podhale Nowy Targ in 2003, but not before winning a silver medal at that year’s World Championships. The transfer did wonders for Radziszewski’s statistics. He ameliorated in a most outstanding fashion, recording a 2.06 goals-against average and a .915% save percentage in 24 games during the 2003-04 season, helping the team win the Polish Cup championship. As well, in 2004, he represented Poland once again, winning bronze at the World Championships. The next year, Radziszewski transferred once again, this time to Cracovia Kraków, with whom he remains to this day. With him between the pipes, Cracovia has become a very successful team, winning Polish championships in 2006, 2008 (in which he appeared in 59 regular-season games), 2009 and 2011. Poland’s national team has been blessed to have Radziszewski’s services, too. In 2005, he had a World Championship-leading 1.26 goals-against average and .956% save percentage, helping Poland win silver, losing gold to a very strong team from Norway. As well, he helped his country win bronze in 2006 and 2008. Radziszewski was given a three-year contract extension by Cracovia in 2011 and he has definitely shown why he deserved it. So far this season, he has a 2.52 goals-against average and a .925% save percentage in seventeen games.
Born on May 22, 1982, Krzysztof Zborowski has been one of the busier Polish goaltenders in recent years. Additionally, he has been bounced around with several different teams during his career. Before he even started playing professionally, Zborowski had represented his homeland internationally, playing for Poland at the 2000 World Under-18s. By the next season, he was already starting to play in the top professional league and, only a year after that, he was a starting goalie for his hometown team, Podhale Nowy Targ. Zborowski played at the 2002 World Juniors and he even dressed as a backup at that year’s World Championships. In 2003, he helped Poland win silver at the World Championships, recording a stellar 1.26 goals-against average and a .909% save percentage in two games, helping his homeland win silver. In 2003-04, Zborowski recorded a personal best goals-against average of 1.87 in fifteen games. After winning two consecutive Polish Cup championships with Nowy Targ in 2004 and 2005, Zborowski briefly transferred to HK Sanok where he spent the entire 2007-08 season before returning to Podhale the next year. In 2008-09, he played in a career-high 54 games, recording a 2.54 goals-against average and a .922% save percentage. He also had a 0.98 goals-against average and .947% save percentage at the 2009 World Championships, his first tournament representing Poland since 2003. In 2010, Zborowski helped Podhale win a Polish championship and helped his country win a bronze medal at the World Championships, this time as the starting netminder. He had a 1.93 goals-against average and a .926% save percentage in five games, helping Poland win bronze. He spent two seasons with Unia Oświęcim before joining Legia Warszawa this year.
Born on October 21, 1985, Przemysław Odrobny is not only one of the most successful Polish goaltenders today but he is easily the most recognizable. He got his first taste of professional hockey at the age of seventeen, getting the chance to practice with his hometown team, Stoczniowiec Gdańsk. Only two years later, Odrobny got to play for them for the first time. In his first season in 2004-05, he had a 2.93 goals-against average and an .895% save percentage, quite impressive for a nineteen-year-old. In the next three seasons, Odrobny appeared in 37, 35 and 34 games, respectively, showing that he was quickly becoming one of the best young goalies in Poland. In 2008, at that time only 22 years old, he played at his first World Championship, which was also his first opportunity to represent his country internationally. With a 1.50 GAA and a .939% save percentage in two games, Odrobny returned home with a bronze medal. The next year, he appeared in a career-high 42 games, registering a 2.66 goals-against average. Two years later, Odrobny appeared in Poland’s All-Star Game, thanks in part to a (so far) career-best .915% save percentage. He also played at the European Championship against other top countries, such as Russia and others, and he came away with being named best goaltender. Also in 2011, Odrobny represented Poland at the World Championships for a second time, recording a 2.25 goals-against average and a .914% save percentage in two games. Before the 2011-12 season began, Odrobny signed a three-year contract with HK Sanok. In that first season with them, he equaled his .915% save percentage from the year before but he also had a 2.46 goals-against average in 39 games; HK Sanok went on to win both the Polish championship and the Polish Cup championship. Additionally, Odrobny was named the #1 goalie for Poland at the 2012 World Championships and he responded with a 1.00 goals-against average and a .942% save percentage in four games — both leading the tournament — en route to being named to the tournament all-star team. Poland won silver, losing gold to South Korea. This season, Odrobny is picking up right where he left off last year with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .913% save percentage in eighteen games thus far. What makes Odrobny most special, though, is how recognizable he is compared to other Polish goaltenders. At 6’4″, he is easily one of the tallest. He also has both an omnipresent smile and scruffy beard on his face. Furthermore, his shoulder-length blonde hair is another distinguishing characteristic and it is also his mane which plays a key role in his incredibly unique mask. Much like the one Gerry Cheevers popularized, the front of Odrobny’s cat-eye mask is white with painted stitches on it; in a unique twist, the sides of the mask have painted ears with painted flaxen locks, looking much like the sides of Odrobny’s own head.
Born on January 11, 1990, Nikifor Szczerba has been one of the more successful Polish goaltenders in terms of glimmering statistics in recent memory, despite the youth that his birthdate would attest to. A native of Krynica Zdrój, Szczerba got his first taste of professional hockey quite early, appearing in two games for Podhale Nowy Targ in 2005 at the age of fifteen, making him the youngest goaltender to ever play in the top Polish professional league. He appeared in only eight games during the 2006-07 season, a campaign spent in Sosnowiec, but the reason was well-founded. In 2007, his mother Barbara passed away and it was especially difficult for the young goalie, who is an only child. Like a trooper, Szczerba carried on, a picture of his mom adorning the centre of his mask. In 2007-08, after only one game with Sosnowiec, he returned home to Krynica and he had one of the best seasons in team history, recording a sparkling 1.08 goals-against average and an .890% save percentage in 27 games. As well, in 2008, Szczerba represented Poland for the first time, appearing in five games at the World Under-18s. He recorded a 3.44 goals-against average and a .905% save percentage, being named one of the top three players on his team. In 2008-09, Szczerba once again returned to Sosnowiec, this time with renewed confidence. He had a 3.75 goals-against average and an .891% save percentage in 26 games. As well, he played at his first World Juniors, appearing in four games for Poland. The next year, Szczerba did something not many other Polish goaltenders have been able to do: Play North American junior hockey. He signed with the Albert Lea Thunder, a team in the NAHL based in Minnesota. He appeared in thirteen games, registering a record of 4-5-3-1 with a 3.20 goals-against average, a .913% save percentage and one shutout, garnering him a spot on Team Legwand at the 2010 NAHL Top Prospects Game in Boston. Szczerba also played in three games during the 2010 World Juniors. After the Thunder folded in 2010, Szczerba headed to Texas, signing with the Amarillo Bulls, another NAHL team. He quickly became their #1 goalie and, in turn, one of the best netminders in the entire league. Szczerba appeared in 46 games, putting together a record of 30-8-4-5 with a 2.52 goals-against average, a .918% save percentage and six shutouts. He was named to the NAHL All-South Division Team. Instead of opting for the NCAA, Szczerba returned to Europe in 2011-12, signing with Baltica Vilnius, a team in the MHL B league based out of the capital city of Lithuania. He joined a rather extensively European roster which saw him playing with individuals from Lithuania, Russia, Estonia, Belarus, Slovakia and Denmark. (In actuality, Szczerba was the only Pole on the roster.) Despite the fact that Baltica used six goalies last season, Szczerba did manage to put up significant statistics, recording a 2.42 goals-against average and a .914% save percentage in nineteen games. On April 6, 2012, he signed to return home to Poland in order to play for GKS Katowice, joining three other goalies: fellow Poles Mariusz Ryszkaniec and Mateusz Domogała, and Polish-American netminder Zane Kalemba,
Born on September 7, 1991, Bartłomiej Niesłuchowski has become one of very few younger Polish goaltenders to find success at home, in North America and internationally. A native of Nowy Targ, Niesłuchowski played his first higher junior league games at the age of fifteen, appearing in three games for Podhale’s under-18 team that year. Only two years later, he was splitting the netminding duties and he had a rather solid season in 2008-09. That year, he had a 3.81 goals-against average and an .868% save percentage in eighteen games. As well, in 2009, Niesłuchowski represented Poland for the first time internationally, dressing at the World Under-18s. He had a very solid 1.98 goals-against average and a .934% save percentage in three games, winning silver after a loss to Belarus in the gold-medal final. In 2009-10, he did not play any games despite being under contract with Podhale’s top professional team; he did, however, get the chance to help celebrate their Polish league championship that year. In 2010-11, Niesłuchowski made the trip to North America to play in the GMHL, an independent junior hockey league, for the Powassan Eagles; his creasemate was fellow Polish netminder Krzysztof Bojanowski, a native of Toruń. After twelve games, Niesłuchowski represented Poland again, this time at the World Juniors. He had a 3.17 goals-against average and an .894% save percentage in three games, coming away with a gold medal around his neck. After the tournament was over, however, he decided to stay home and play the remainder of the season in Nowy Targ. He has since spent the last two seasons with Podhale.
Born on April 2, 1992, Sebastian Mrugała has not played nearly as much hockey as several other of the Polish goaltenders on this list but he is quickly becoming one of the best on the international stage. Mrugała played eight games in 2009-10, suiting up for the junior team of his hometown squad, Podhale Nowy Targ. That same year, he represented Poland for the first time in an international tournament, playing at the World Under-18s. In five games, he had a 4.02 goals-against average and a rather solid .873% save percentage, en route to winning himself both a bronze medal and the honour of being the tournament’s top goalie. In 2010-11, Mrugała returned to Podhale, playing in seventeen games for the junior squad. He was also called up for one game to the professional team and he responded by posting a shutout. Last season, he appeared in only two games for the pro team but he also got to play at the World Juniors. In two games at the tournament, he had some of the best statistics of his career, recording a 2.47 goals-against average and a .904% save percentage. This season, Mrugała switched teams, leaving his hometown of Nowy Targ behind to sign with Cracovia, playing alongside the aforementioned Rafał Radziszewski as well as 1990-born Mateusz Kulig. Mrugała has yet to play any games this year with Radziszewski appearing in seventeen games so far this year but, as the season progresses, he should be able to get his chance.
Born on October 14, 1993, Robert Kowalówka may not be the statistically best of the Polish goaltenders on this list as of yet but he is starting to turn heads on the international stage. Kowalówka started his way toward both junior and professional hockey life but he really got his foot in the door at the age of fifteen, when he played his first game for SMS I Sosnowiec, his first of four that year. He also appeared at his first World Under-18 championship for Poland. The next season, he appeared in five games with the same organization before playing in twenty games for their II team, a junior team. During that time, he may not have had the best goals-against average but he was very steady, recording a rather solid .824% save percentage. While for most goalies that would be considered quite low, Kowalówka’s registering of that statistic at only seventeen years old makes it incredible. Incredibly, Kowalówka was brought along to the 2011 World Juniors, despite the fact that Poland had several older goaltenders. He made the best of it, leading the tournament with a minuscule 0.46 goals-against average and a dazzling .964% save percentage in three games, both of which led the tourney. Even more impressive, he won himself a gold medal for his efforts. Unfortunately, Kowalówka was unable to perform an encore in 2012 since his playing time was cut short, limiting his action to only five games. This season, he opted to return to his hometown to play for Unia Oświęcim. Kowalówka has considerable family ties in hockey, as well. His older brothers Adrian and Sebastian play for Cracovia while his cousin Mateusz plays for Unia’s junior team.
Born on December 5, 1995, Wiktor Kopyciński has already had the opportunity to play in both his homeland and in Germany, an incredible accomplishment despite he is one of the younger Polish goaltenders playing today. Despite his smaller stature, Kopyciński has been a very effective young netminder whose career is just going to continue to be on the rise. He played his minor hockey in his hometown with Stoczniowiec Gdańsk, the same youth team that developed other goalies such as the aforementioned Przemysław Odrobny, brothers Bartosz and Cezary Maza, Sylwester Soliński and Tomasz Witkowski. By the time he was old enough to play in the upper echelons of junior hockey, Kopyciński moved on to play in Toruń with their youth team. As one of the youngest players on the roster, he helped the team win their under-16 league championship. A year later, Kopyciński moved to Germany to play in the Schüler-Bundesliga, the best under-16 league in that country. He signed with the under-16 team of ES Weißwasser, a quite renowned organization that boasts Toni Ritter, Sebastian Elwing and Elia Ostwald among its most well-known alumni. Kopyciński appeared in 21 games that season. He has since returned to Poland, playing with Toruń’s under-18 team, Sokoly. The men’s professional team, KS Toruń, has developed the likes of other goalies such as Miłosz Ciesielski, Norbert Karamuz and Krzysztof Bojanowski. As Kopyciński grows physically and professionally, his career will be on the upswing, possibly allowing for him to become one of Poland’s go-to goaltenders in several future tournaments.